Hockey Canada officials have a new tactic for catalyzing enrolment in youth hockey: cheaper stuff.
New membership cards being mailed to registered minor hockey players and coaches this fall will give card holders a break on food, gas and merchandise purchased from the organization's corporate sponsors.
The consumer program is similar to other rewards programs promoted by banks and gas companies.
For example, hockey parents will receive discounts at certain stores and gas stations. If they buy products online, a portion of their purchase can also be used toward decreasing league registration costs.
The announcement comes at a time when hockey officials are under pressure to recruit new players to the sport – and retain them.
Enrolment in minor hockey has plateaued for several years, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said at a press conference on Friday.
"We are concerned about the demographics coming in front of us. There's less kids in Canada, overall. And when you look at the number of kids, there's a lot more immigrants in this country. So it's not like 10, 15 years ago, when at Christmas time you got a pair of skates under the Christmas tree."
The high cost of equipment, travel and ice time can be prohibitive for families. However, safety concerns are also driving children away from the sport as alarming new research fuels concern about the short- and long-term effects of concussions.
Safety has been an issue for hockey recruiters, but it isn't the primary barrier, Nicholson said.
"I certainly wouldn't hang that out as 'the issue' keeping kids out of the game," he said. "I really do think it is safety, [and] it is cost of the game – ice costs are definitely there. I think the other one is access. When you can play, times that you can play.
"The elite players are finding places. We have to make sure the kids who want to play the game once or twice a week, the easiest way to get them in the rink in a safe, less-expensive environment."
He said Hockey Canada will soon unveil a new computer application that will help educate parents and coaches about the prevention and treatment of head injuries, including concussions.
The sport's national governing body will also emphasize its zero-tolerance policy on hits to the head. But there will be no new guidelines on bodychecking this season, despite recent studies showing players ages 11 to 13 in pee wee leagues where bodychecking is allowed are at three times the risk for a concussion than in leagues where the hits are banned.
How to make the game safer is still up for debate, Nicholson said.
"Skill of checking is what we're talking about, and checking should be introduced as soon as they start. And first steps of checking are skating backwards, turning, then you add containment and body contact. The issue becomes, [at what age] do you go from contact to bodychecking? And that's still a debate in our country."